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A pier at Fell's Point, a Baltimore neighborhood where Laura Lippman's private investigator protagonist Tess Monaghan once lived. (AP)

Laura Lippman's Baltimore: Loving a Flawed Place

Aug 23, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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Laura Lippman This former barbershop clock is a familiar fixture in the Tess Monaghan mysteries.

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Laura Lippman writes mostly about private investigator Tess Monaghan. Monaghan is a made-up name and what she does is a matter of fiction. But when Lippman puts Baltimore on the page, she's got to get it right.

Lippman is so focused on the authenticity of the place that she often gets into a dispute with her editors over whether to spell row house (Baltimore is well-known for the narrow brick structures) as one or two words.

On a rainy August day, Lippman gives a visiting reporter a tour of her city, starting in Fells Point, where the fictional Monaghan used to live in a row house above her aunt's bookstore.

It's also where Bob Gerber, known as the Antique Man, shows off the 800-pound "Haussner's ball of string." The ball consists of thousands of pieces of twine — napkin ties from the former Haussner's Restaurant, a place Lippman fondly remembers from her childhood.

Gerber might even give away the ball of string someday, but it's got to stay in Baltimore, he says. He's seen too much of the city disappear — and change.

Asked about the pistol he wears, Gerber says, "It's a great neighborhood, but it's still bad. Baltimore City is in bad shape and myself, I've had problems in this store. I have guys run in, walk in. They're just looking for something easy to catch and I'm too old to fight them so I figure if I've got a gun, I've got a fighting chance."

Lippman's next stop: the old Lexington Market downtown, where she grabs a lunch of crab cakes and beer. The Baltimore markets are favorite Tess Monaghan meeting places.

The day's final excursion is along an interstate highway that comes to a sudden end. In a book, Monaghan calls this "the ghost road." I-70 was supposed to go through Baltimore to the waterfront. But the highway ends at a West Baltimore's park once known as a place to dump bodies.

Lippman, a former newspaper reporter and now a crime writer, pays attention to the dead-body stories.

One afternoon each week, she volunteers at a soup kitchen. A young girl she got to know there was fatally stabbed. People walk in who've been pistol-whipped for their paychecks.

This is the Baltimore she decided to write about — not the teased hairdos and diners and the long-gone Baltimore Colts.

"I think Baltimore suffers from nostalgia and it keeps us from being honest in talking about what really happened here," Lippman says. "A place doesn't have to be perfect to be beloved, and I love this city and I love it better for seeing its flaws. Anyone can love a perfect place. Loving Baltimore takes some resilience."

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The Accidental Detective

Read a Laura Lippman Profile of Her Leading Character, Tess Monaghan

Three Views of Locust Point

Read Excerpts from Three Laura Lippman Books

Third of a four-part series.

Read full story transcript

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